Difficulties facing retailers in towns and cities nationwide – typically too few customers spending too little money – are also typical of the problems being experienced in many other sectors of the economy.
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for improving the business outlook, but communication is an area we should all be looking at, whatever our sector.
It pays to advertise, according to the old saying, and it’s certainly a good way to transmit a repetitive sales message. But what today’s businesses need is a deeper way to change behaviour – to turn potential customers into actual customers.
This is where communication comes in. Retailers – and others – who educate and inform their customers properly will also entice them. And then they’re well on the road to behavioural change.
So, what’s needed? First, it’s the right products, prices and attitude. You should also know your customers and potential customers – they may have very different characteristics. Then you need a story to tell, which could relate to your product range, expertise, brilliant customer service, your ability to solve customers’ problems cost effectively, and so on.
Fill your website with useful information, then use social media, emails and every other opportunity to encourage people to visit your site. Ensure there’s always a strong call to action … and clear contact details.
Whatever you do, don’t simply talk to people: talk with them. Real communication is a two-way process, and feedback from customers can be extremely valuable.
This week I was honoured to be elected to the committee of our local chamber of commerce. I have been a member of the chamber for almost three years, during which time I have made valuable new business contacts and – more importantly – developed a keener understanding of the commercial and communication challenges facing small businesses.
Many people, I suspect, view chambers of commerce merely as interest groups (even social clubs) for local retailers. This may be true of some chambers, but ours, at least, has a good representation of other sectors too – and its activities go a long way beyond the purely social.
What all chambers share is the capability to drive regional economic growth – and to speak out on vital local issues.
It’s a simplistic view, I know, but for most SMEs there is always business potential on the doorstep – it just requires a concerted effort to encourage local communities to ‘buy local’. A similar effort may be needed at times, for example, to counter the enthusiasm of councillors and officials for changing parking arrangements to the detriment of some businesses.
A difficulty for some chambers – ours included – is that not all local businesses give financial or other support. The annual subscription is modest – so is not a valid excuse for apathy – and the reason for becoming involved should be a no-brainer. The challenge, therefore, is to recruit more members, so the chambers gain more muscle and a more powerful voice.
Our new committee will, no doubt, build on the excellent foundations laid by our predecessors. We will certainly be encouraging the community to look locally for customers and suppliers. We’ll also be recruiting members. My main aim as a committee member will be to ensure that the chamber communicates with greater power and effect than previously, and that we also empower members to communicate more effectively.
Have you considered how your local chamber could help your business – or what you could do to support the chamber? Get involved today!
Whatever your line of business, in the run-up to Christmas you are probably wondering what you can do to make 2013 a whole lot more profitable.
You know your market, your products and pricing are right, your service is excellent – but somehow you are not quite cutting it.
It’s likely the one thing you are not doing adequately is communicating. That is the activity you simply must step up during prolonged periods of downturn or recession. You must keep telling people what you offer and why they should buy from you.
Advertising is good – if you can afford enough placements across a wide range of media to reach all your target customers. A public relations programme, on the other hand, can make a limited marketing budget go a lot further. You don’t need to spend huge sums on PR, but plan for ongoing activity, every month.
To help you, here are five PR-related ‘New Year resolutions’ for better communication:
The imminent opening of stationery giant W.H. Smith in Our Town has sparked an unsurprising howl of anger in the local media. “It’s unfair,” people say, suggesting the new branch will be a grave threat to existing retailers in the stationery, books and greetings cards sectors. But is it another nail in our local retail coffin – or an opportunity for small shopkeepers to grow their businesses?
As an observer, it’s easy for me to comment – but I believe competition is good for any market. Competition is only unfair if existing players fail to rise to the challenges introduced by new participants. And that’s no fault of the majors.
As a communicator, I would urge existing businesses to reassess how they engage with their customers and potential customers – and then settle down to a fresh policy of comprehensive stocks, attractive prices, excellent service and continued engagement.
In reality, every successful business has to invest time and energy in development. It’s no good simply waiting for customers to appear. You have to offer what they want, then tell them to come and get it! I call it crafty communication.
Given the widespread decline of traditional high street shopping across much of the UK, public concern when yet another national store moves into a small town is understandable.
However, what many overlook is that major chain stores attract customers, encouraging footfall and therefore increasing the visibility of smaller retailers. This is why many shopping malls have majors in the corners, forcing people to walk past – and, hopefully, into – smaller boutiques in between.
Towns which have suffered severe high street decline may reflect more than the arrival of overwhelming competition – they may also have been unable to accommodate central retail and parking facilities to suit today’s population. Record levels of car ownership underline the attractiveness of conveniently sited out-of-town superstores.
Our Town is more fortunate. We have two main shopping nodes, three strategically placed supermarkets and a wide range of specialist retailers. A mere handful of vacant shops await new tenants. Parking is a sore point locally, but there are ample spaces for shoppers – and we do still have a reasonably good local bus service.
The new stationer will no doubt bring increased demand for parking and bus seats – but that’s good for the town, because it’s more shoppers. Smart shopkeepers will be looking to cash in on higher traffic volumes, and to do that they need to talk to their customers using all available channels and tactics. It’s what PR consultants are here to help with.
If you would like some help engaging with your markets
David Goddin was born in the UK and educated in South Africa. He began his career on daily newspapers and trade journals, before moving into public relations consulting. He produced award-winning writing and became an Accredited PR Practitioner, the highest qualification of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa. Since his return to the UK 17 years ago he has also contributed to a number of highly successful PR and marketing communications campaigns for major national and multinational clients. He is currently also President of the Haslemere & District Chamber of Trade & Commerce.